WTO Fears Bush Go-it-alone Role
by Elizabeth Becker
International Herald Tribue
Saturday 15 March 2003
U.S. policy could threaten international trade, aides warn
GENEVA - In a break from years of unwavering public faith in the United States, top officials at the World Trade Organization are worried that the Bush administration's go-it-alone policy is threatening international trade.
In the normally closed, clubby world of the WTO, envoys and officials said they feared that American moves within the organization and toward a war in Iraq would weaken respect for international rules and lead to serious practical consequence for the world economy and business.
In the past months the United States has compiled one of the worst records for violating trade rules and has single-handedly blocked an agreement to provide medicines for the world's poorest nations, a rare accomplishment in this institution that never openly votes on agreements but painstakingly builds a consensus behind closed doors.
Supachai Panitchpakdi, director-general of the WTO who is required to strike a neutral pose as head of the institution, said an upcoming war could have a devastating practical impact as the world is grappling with a slowdown in trade, the rise of oil prices and the rising cost of transportation and insurance. "I can feel the sense of trepidation," Supachai said in an interview. "Whatever happens, if the U.S. will maintain the way we use multilateral solutions, it will be highly appreciated."
That delicate expression of concern about the effect of waging war without explicit approval of the United Nations was repeated by some of America's strongest allies. They said they were worried that all international institutions would suffer a loss of credibility if the one superpower appeared to be choosing which rules to obey and which to ignore.
"Normally you can't go to war without the cover of the UN, but Americans are doing quite a few things alone - even here," said Carlo Trojan, permanent representative of the European Union at the WTO. The most glaring example here of going-it-alone was the United States' last minute refusal to sign off on an agreement that would help poor nations buy generic medicines through exemptions from trade rules.
Developing nations had pinned their hopes on this agreement to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases that are ravaging their countries and destroying their plans to climb out of poverty.
But the United States, with the strong approval of the American pharmaceutical industry, exercised its veto, which every nation possesses, and destroyed the deal.
That upended the timetable for this round of trade negotiations that is dedicated to solving the problems of a developing nations, a cause identified with Supachai.
As the former deputy prime minister of Thailand and first director-general of the WTO, Supachai is in the same position as former Vice President Al Gore was to environmental issues.
At the top of his agenda is the reduction of agriculture subsidies in rich nations and helping poor nations gain access to inexpensive, generic medicine.
Now he has lost the first battle.
"That was a great pity," he said. "It would have sent a powerful message that we talk not only about trade deals but humanitarian deals."
Diplomats said they found it striking that Europe was willing to stand up to its pharmaceutical industries and support the agreement while the United States was not.
Sergio Marchi, permanent representative of Canada to the WTO, said that U.S. behavior not only put millions of lives at risk but threatened the organization itself.
"No one can criticize the fact that all politics are local. But you can't operate 100 percent on local politics if you're part of a multinational organization," he said. "Otherwise one day it's your politics, next year it's mine and then there is no more international organization."
For its part, administration officials said they, too, want an agreement that helps provide medicines. But they consider the current agreement too open-ended and say it could lead to developing nations buying generic versions of drugs under U.S. patents to treat diseases such as asthma, obesity and impotence.
Linnet Deily, U.S. permanent representative at the WTO, said that developing nations understood the United States wanted to help those suffering from the worst epidemics, especially the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
"The president's pledge of $15 billion in the State of the Union was extremely meaningful to delegates here," she said.
She also disputed the notion that the mood toward the United States had changed at the WTO from wholesale support following the Sept. 11 attacks to open questioning of American exceptionalism and motives.
"As far as I'm concerned that energy is more intensely felt today than it was a year and a half ago," she said.
As a pillar of the trading establishment - indeed the world's largest trading power - the United States is expected to lead the movement for more liberal trading rules. But since last year, after President George W. Bush imposed steel tariffs and signed a farm bill that dramatically increased subsidies, officials here are wondering if the United States is rescripting its role.
"The World Trade Organization is supposed to be about trade-offs - giving up something and getting something else in return," said Shefali Sharma, representative here of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis.
"Before the European Union was the biggest sinner but the United States is making Europe look good," she said.
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